Cramming for Finals Week: Flyers Have Three Chances to Get It Right Heading Into Playoffs

Cramming for Finals Week: Flyers Have Three Chances to Get It Right Heading Into Playoffs

Having already been assured a playoff spot,
the Flyers technically have little more to play for than the pride of
conference and division titles, the latter of which can be wrapped up
tonight (based on this scenario), and of course home-ice advantage. But there is also plenty they can unofficially gain over their final three games. 

A few weeks ago, the only uncertainty with this team was which goalie
would be in net. Today, that's about the most concrete answer we know
(btw, Bob starts again tonight in Ottawa). All of sudden, there are a
few new injuries, though none are believed to be too serious, and Chris
Pronger is still out after a setback of sorts with his hand. Other
sources of uncertainty include the team's record at home recently, their
inability to do anything on the power play, an overall tapering off in
scoring, failure to beat teams seven or more slots below them in the
standings, and what, if anything, can be divined from all of these games
ending in shootouts recently.

Let's take a look at a few of these questions, as well as the recent
news on Michael Leighton, with absolutely no promises of actually
answering them. That's presumably what the next three games are for,
although I'm betting we probably won't know anything for sure about this
team until the first round of the playoffs. 

Bob, Boosh, and... Leights? 
First, Sergei
Bobrovsky is your playoff starter, and he'll probably play two of the
remaining games, or all three. After a swoon, he's been quite good
lately, and there's little reason to think Peter Laviolette is wavering
on him. Not even the surprise placement of Michael Leighton on re-entry
waivers should affect the playoff goalie situation, although I
admittedly am not sure why the team is exposing him to the process at
this time. If claimed by another team, the Flyers will be on the hook
for half of the AHL-hot Leighton's salary for another team. However,
Leights is ineligible to play for any of those teams in the upcoming
playoffs, so it's no slam dunk he'll be picked up in the next day. Are
the Flyers just looking to add him for injury depth? Clear half his
salary and some space for AHL goalie development of another goalie with a
longer-term timetable? I assume it's the insurance angle, but I'll tell
you when someone else tells me, because I'm really not sure what the
goal is here. The sting of seeing the roster hit by several injuries at
once is a good reminder of the wear and tear that is on the way though.
CSN's Sarah Baicker says that if Leighton clears, he'll play in one of
the two remaining games. 

Shootout Obscura
We've already gone over the
reasons we don't like the shootout, and yesterday, Peter Laviolette said
essentially the same thing about them—it's really quite hard to evaluate the outcome
of a game that ends in a shootout. Even those of us who are
dyed-in-the-wool shootout haters can lapse into counting any loss
collectively as an L. But as we've pointed out before, these particular
outcomes have very little to do with what will occur when it really
counts, as there is no shootout format in the playoffs. I say "very
little" as opposed to "not at all" because one fact still haunts the
Flyers more than the sight of a gifted scorer tripping over his own
stick to blow the decisive shot attempt—the Flyers should have been
winning many of those games in the first 60 minutes of play.

While the homer in me has been leaning toward the shootout results
obscuring the Flyers' not actually losing, those outcomes have done just
as much to hide the fact that the Flyers aren't winning by two and
three goals against teams they should be clearly better than. When the
shootout is removed, will these games still be going into OT, or can the
Flyers get back to outplaying their opponents enough in regulation to
just effing win? In any case, I'll be ecstatic when the regular season
is over, because the shootout will be gone with it, and we'll actually
be able to discuss who did or didn't win on the morning after. 

Superiority Complex
In all likelihood, the Flyers
will play either one of the bottom two seeds in the Eastern Conference
in the opening round. If not, we'll have seen a dreadful week.
Considering both the seventh and the eighth seeded teams won round one
last season, being a top seed is not necessarily a sunrise on the
horizon. We don't presently know which direction the Flyers are headed
in, and it's suddenly not out of the question that they might be last
year's Capitals. I'm not inclined to think so, but I can safely be
labeled an optimist when it comes to these things. It's rare that a one
seed backs its way into the playoffs, but the Flyers will fit that
description almost regardless to what happens in these final three
games, short of three straight decisive wins. Even then, we've seen
enough lackluster play that there will be concerns come game one.

The Flyers face three supposedly inferior teams this week, starting
tonight in Ottawa. On Sunday, we went over the reasons why a matchup
with the Rangers should be the perfect catalyst to get their blood
moving. The Flyers were decent in the game, but it wasn't the showing we
were looking for. Considering the amount of Flyers-Senators footage you
can find on YouTube, maybe tonight is a little more what the doctor
ordered?

PECO Has a Complaint About Its Bill
Watching the
Flyers' power play, I can't help but think what a microcosm of the
team's issues this is. Their overall dip in scoring can be tied to the
fact that they're not doing a damn thing on the man advantage lately.
Why is this microcosmic to me? Because I can't understand at all what
the freaking problem is. Part of it comes with the fact that most people
who follow hockey, fans and media alike, lack a true understanding of
the X's and O's of this very fluid sport at the professional level. I
admit to being in this camp, and the power play is how I know my
shortcomings. I cannot for the life of me figure out why a team stacked
with 20-goal scorers and a few 30/30 men can't score when the other team
has fewer players on the ice than they do, nor what they should be
doing differently to fix it. I'm this close to becoming one of
those fans who just yells SHOOT because I have no idea what else to say.
(Incidentally, it's not "Shoot!" The Flyers have been doing that, but
not with any amount of success.) 

In any case, if there's any one thing this team needs to get in order
above all else, it's the power play. Another goal a game would really
change the complexion of regulation play, which right now has the Flyers
going end to end with opponents scrapping for scoring chances and then
sitting back on defense. With the game tied, opposing teams seem to be
taking fewer chances, which gives the Flyers less ability to use their
great counter-attack to generate offense. There's also no margin of
error for the fluke goals that have plagued the Flyers, such as the
three that have gone in off skates in the past two games.

Will the return of Pronger and Briere help? It should, as they're
among the better PP guys on the team. However, this dip in man advantage
productivity pre-dates Pronger's injury and certainly Briere's. 

The Final Three
Only one of the Flyers' remaining
three games comes against a possible playoff opponent, and that's
Friday in Buffalo. The Sabres could be hungry for their playoff lives
(currently the eighth seed) but Ryan Miller is dealing with an injury
and his availability is uncertain. There is no good reason for the
Flyers not to win at least two of three here and finish with the top
seed in the East. However, they've been losing for bad reasons ranging
from the stupid shootout to the woes on the power play, and a penchant
for making backup goalies look like Dominik Hasek.

More than anything, I'm hoping the final three games serve to get us
ready for the playoffs. I'm not sure that, win or lose, these outcomes
can change much for the team. But it felt great when we were all riding
high, and I want that shit back heading into the playoffs.

Union's homegrown program produces latest signing Derrick Jones

union-derrick-jones-signing.jpg
Philadelphia Union

Union's homegrown program produces latest signing Derrick Jones

CHESTER, Pa. — Long after most of the Union players retreated from the heat Wednesday, Derrick Jones remained on the practice field. Not even his new rookie responsibility of carrying the bag of balls could dampen the 19-year-old’s enthusiasm of participating in his first official training as a member of the Union.

“I was just excited,” said Jones, who signed a homegrown contract with the Union a day earlier. “I was just happy. I didn’t know where I was going to be four years ago.”

Jones’ path to the pros was certainly an interesting one as he came from Ghana to South Philly in 2012 and, at the time, “didn’t know anything about the Union.” But he soon found his way to YSC Academy, the Union-run high school in Wayne, and after graduating from there, was the first player ever signed by the Bethlehem Steel, the team’s expansion minor-league affiliate.

He then played well enough for Bethlehem this season to ink a deal with the Union on Tuesday as their first Homegrown signing since 2012 and just the fourth in franchise history.

“It’s a proud moment for me as a coach, a former academy coach,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “I’d like to thank [YSC Academy head and Union part owner] Richie Graham and [academy director] Tommy Wilson for the job they did developing Derrick, and also [Bethlehem Steel head coach] Brendan Burke sprinkling in that extra polish for the half a season that Derrick put in. I’d also like to thank the players because the one thing people don’t always get to see is how valuable it is with our first-team players being around Derrick in the preseason and putting him under their wing and all of those little things. 

“As a club, it’s a proud moment because everybody has played a role, from our medical staff to our trainers to our equipment guys, all the way through our academy to Bethlehem to now our first team.”

Ever since the franchise’s exception, Union coaches and executives have always said how they wanted to build a team from their youth ranks with several players hailing from the Philadelphia area. But, as it turned out, it was easier said than done.

Zach Pfeffer was the first player to sign a homegrown contract (an MLS mechanism that allows teams to directly sign youth players from their own development academies) as a 15-year-old Upper Dublin High School sophomore in December of 2010. And although he showed some promise, the teenager was never able to become a regular and was traded to the Colorado Rapids this past offseason. Former manager Peter Nowak signed two other homegrown players — Jimmy McLaughlin and Cristhian Hernandez — during his tenure but neither played much and are no longer with the club.

You can certainly argue that Pfeffer, McLaughlin and Hernandez were all victims of an old system that didn’t allow them to properly develop at such a young age. In many ways, that’s why the Union launched YSC Academy and the Bethlehem Steel: to create a more surefire pathway from high school to the pros without throwing teenagers directly into the fire.

And Jones, the only current homegrown player on the roster, is the first to truly benefit from that improved structure — and will very likely usher in a new, better era of youth development for the Union.

“Everyone likes to compare who’s doing it the best, and there’s a lot of really good things being done right now in the U.S. Developmental Academy and specific MLS academies, but I can say with confidence, having coached in it and lived through it and having seen it up close, our academy is the one that prepares these kids for life more so than any,” Curtin said. “So everyone wants to talk about the successful homegrowns and how many each team has, but no one writes the article about a lot of the homegrowns that are out of this league in a year and no one cares about them anymore.

“It does need to be said that our structure, in the way Richie Graham has set it up, is holistic in every way. The school and the things that they do there, it is amazing. It’s a special environment, and it’s one that is based on each individual kid and their needs, because every kid has different spurts in their development, highs and lows. And the support system that they provide at our academy is second to none in this country.”

Curtin’s glowing praise of YSC Academy is not hyperbole. The school is the first in the country to fully integrate a college-preparatory education with an MLS-affiliated youth soccer development program with practice time embedded into the school day. And although Jones is the first from the school to sign with the Union, many others in the first two graduating classes have moved on to play high-level Division 1 soccer (and can still sign with the Union, or the Steel, as a homegrown player if they shine at the collegiate level). 

“They helped me a lot,” Jones said of YSC Academy. “It was good. I got to train twice a day. I spent my whole day over there. In terms of working on my fitness, it really helped me.”

The school also helped Jones adapt to the United States away from the field, and even though he’s a quiet kid, his new teammates made sure to greet him with a lot of smiles this week. MLS veteran Chris Pontius said he expects Jones’ personality to come out in a few months and praised his soccer skills, calling him “a good two-way player” in the midfield.

It might be unfair to expect Jones to play right away for the Union but the 19-year-old will certainly be ready if called upon, as early as Sunday’s home game vs. Real Salt Lake (7 p.m., CSN).

“I don’t know what that’s going to be like,” Jones said. “Maybe I’ll get nervous since it’s my first game. But I’m looking forward to it.”

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Chance for Nola to respond vs. worst offense

matchup-phillies-braves.png

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Chance for Nola to respond vs. worst offense

Phillies (46-57) at Braves (35-66)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies were throttled Wednesday, 11-1, as they dropped their fourth straight series coming out of the All-Star break. 

The Phils have gone 2-4 through the first two stops of their three-city, 10-game road trip which now takes them to Atlanta. It's a winnable series against the majors' worst team that could get the ice-cold Phillies' offense back on track.

Let's take a look at the opener:

1. Important night for Nola
Aaron Nola came out of the All-Star break with six shutout innings of the Marlins. It didn't mean he was all the way back. Sure enough, his next start was a struggle, just like his five before the break.

Nola allowed six runs in four innings to the Pirates last weekend as his ERA rose again to 4.75. He's allowed four runs or more in six of his last seven starts, five runs or more in five of his last seven, and he's pitched more than five innings just once in that span.

His command is just gone right now. And that's why this is such an important start for him. Facing the worst offense in baseball in a pitcher-friendly environment could build back Nola's confidence and result in a quality start, even if he's not locating perfectly. There is one dangerous hitter in Atlanta's lineup, Freddie Freeman. Other than that, Nola should be able to get away with a curveball that hangs a bit or a fastball that doesn't perfectly nip the outside corner.

His focus tonight should be attacking. Nola has faced the Braves four times and gone 2-1 with a 1.73 ERA.

2. Situational struggles
The Phillies went 2 for 21 with runners in scoring position in the Marlins series. On Wednesday, they had 10 hits but left 10 men on base. 

Rarely do you see a team come an out away from being shut out when its first two hitters reach base seven of 10 times. Cesar Hernandez was 3 for 4 with a walk, Odubel Herrera was 2 for 4 with a walk, and Maikel Franco also had a multi-hit game batting third.

But the Phils have just been unable to come up with the one big hit since the break and it's why they're averaging 2.6 runs per game.

3. Scouting Wisler
The Phils get another look at young Braves right-hander Matt Wisler (4-10, 4.92), whose ERA is much higher than it was the last time they faced him.

Wisler, like Nola, has been pounded lately. He ended May with a 3.16 ERA, but has a 7.40 ERA in nine starts since, allowing his opponents a .329 batting average and .934 OPS. 

Wisler faced the Phils twice in a 10-day span on May 10 and May 20 and allowed four runs in 14⅔ innings.

Wisler's fastball averages 94 mph, but he doesn't strike many batters out (6.8 per nine this season). He usually uses three pitches: four-seam fastball, sinker and slider.

Current Phillies have hit .299 against him in 67 at-bats with seven doubles and three home runs. Franco has done the most damage, going 5 for 9 with two doubles and a homer.

4. Bullpen blunders
The Phillies' bullpen has a 5.14 ERA since the All-Star break, another reason they've struggled. The main culprits have been Andrew Bailey (seven runs in four innings) and Brett Oberholtzer (four in five). 

The Phillies have three legit bullpen pieces in Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos, but none of the others have been reliable, which is a problem when the Phils don't carry a lead into the later innings. 

Expect to see a lot of bullpen turnover next season. The Phils have two promising young relievers in the minors in Jimmy Cordero (Double A) and Victor Arano (High A) who could turn this unit into one of the hardest-throwing in the game when they're ready to join Neris and Ramos. 

Bailey and Oberholtzer are not long for this organization. Both are free agents after the year and both could be designated for assignment to make room for another player over the next month.

5. This and that
• The Phillies are 6-3 vs. the Braves this season after going 30-45 against them from 2013 to 2015.

• Atlanta is a majors-worst 14-36 at home.

• Freeman is hitting .280 with 18 home runs and an .881 OPS, but he has just 41 RBIs because the Braves barely get on base ahead of him.

The Phanatic scared the bejesus out of Savannah Guthrie on the Today Show

savannahguthrie-phanatic.jpg

The Phanatic scared the bejesus out of Savannah Guthrie on the Today Show

Perhaps the best thing about the Democratic National Convention descending upon the city of Philadelphia this week is the fact that the Phillie Phanatic can just pop up anywhere, at any given moment and scare the bejesus out of people.

That happened on the Today Show when Savannah Guthrie didn't see it coming.

That Carson Daly guy looked pretty spooked too while Al Roker is cool as a cucumber. Al knows.